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The wind beneath our wings

Saikat Datta knows that one mistake could take hundreds of lives but he loves the challenge his new job comes with. “The stakes are high. Every time an aircraft goes out of the hangar, it’s our assurance that says it’s hundred per cent air worthy,” says Datta, in his second year of the aircraft maintenance engineering course at the Camellia Institute of Aviation, Calcutta.

When one thinks of a career in the aviation industry, it is either as a pilot or as cabin crew but beyond the glamour and coveted uniforms are careers that are not only ambitious but come with a whole lot of responsibility. One such job is that of an aircraft maintenance engineer (AME).

“An AME is like a doctor, but with double the responsibilities,” says Datta. “A pilot merely flies and reaches the destination. We ensure that the aircraft is fit to fly and that passengers can fly safely, and that’s a massive task,” says Datta.

An AME’s main task is to see to it that each and every part of the aircraft is in prime working condition. From inspecting the engines all the way to the air conditioning and landing gear, an AME is expected to know the part of the aircraft he’s an expert on like the back of his hand and be able to carry out repairs if needed.

The aircraft industry in India is booming with airline operators being forced to hire pilots from abroad. The requirement for AMEs is even greater. “Currently, around 260 aircraft are in operation in India and these are set to double in the next few years. The new aircraft will be larger and far more challenging to maintain so the industry is always looking for competent AME professionals,” says Pradip Biswas, director, Camellia Airways Pvt. Ltd, Calcutta.

According to Biswas, there’s a huge demand for AMEs abroad, especially in Asia, so opportunities for Indian professionals are looking bright. The salaries in the sector have increased by leaps and bounds in recent years. A fresher with a licence can easily earn anywhere between Rs 20,000 and 25,000. “With a few years of experience and expertise on newer aircraft, a person can easily command a salary of around a lakh,” says Salimuddin Mallick, a former AME with the Indian Air Force currently working as a deputy chief instructor in Calcutta. According to Mallick, AMEs in senior posts can earn up to Rs 3.5 lakh.

“If professionals have to progress in their careers, they have to constantly gain expertise in examining newer aircraft and obtaining fresh licences. This career is certainly not for somebody who thinks that passing the three-year course will lead to a rosy future,” says Biswas.

Mallick agrees. “The first few years have to be spent in acquiring skills rather than settling into a job, and only then will the career bloom and you will enjoy the fruits of success,” he says. Another advantage is that AME is basically a license-based profession so there is no retirement age as such. “Very much like a doctor, an AME can work as long as he or she is fit enough,” says Datta.

There were not many institutes around the country offering AME courses till a few years ago but recognising the projected demand for the engineers in the future, the government’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) recently gave various institutes the licence to offer the course.

The training period at these institutes lasts for two and a half years followed by a semester of “post institutional apprenticeship” at a DGCA-approved flying club or an airline where students work in real-time situations.

A trainee has to take three licence examinations conducted by the DGCA and receives a Basic Maintenance Engineer’s Certificate (BAMEC) recognised by the government once he passes these. Acquiring a BAMEC is necessary for obtaining an AME licence to inspect and certify aircraft, engines and systems. The AME licence issued by the DGCA is internationally recognised.

The BAMEC is issued for both light and heavy aircraft, helicopters, piston engines, radio navigation systems and others. The minimum qualification for admission to almost any AME course is the Plus Two with an aggregate of at least 50 per cent in maths, physics and chemistry. Almost all the institutes have their own entrance exams followed by interviews. Some institutes go by IIT-JEE scores to select students. Fees range from Rs 2-4 lakh depending on the area of specialisation.

Different institutes impart AME training for different types of aircraft. For instance, the Camellia Institute offers specialisation in heavy aeroplanes and jet engines, where as the North East Institute of Aeronautics, Guwahati, works with light aircraft and piston engines. The choice is for students to make.

“If you take a cursory look at the kind of aircraft that are flying in India currently and in the coming years, you will notice that most of these are massive aircraft and require heavy aircraft engineers in large numbers,” says Sridhar Kumar, former director of airworthiness of an airline.

Some of the top institutes that impart AME training include the School of Aviation Science and Technology or the Center for Civil Aviation Training in New Delhi; the Institute of Aircraft Maintenance Engineers, Secunderabad, and the Indian Institute of Aeronautical Science, Calcutta, to name a few. India has about 60 AME training institutes, 10 in the eastern region alone.

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